by Weizmann Hamilton
21 September 2012
At the end of July the signing of a three-year salary agreement between the government and the public-sector unions was greeted with relief and hailed as historic. The possibility of a repeat of the massive public-sector strikes of 2007 and 2010 had been averted for the next three years and labour stability would be the order of the day, in one of the most combative sectors of the working class in recent years. The effectiveness of the labour-relations system of South Africa’s 18-year old democracy had been proven, it was claimed.
Two weeks later, an earthquake erupted at Marikana that has dealt a shattering blow to the credibility of that labour-relations system, to the institutions for the resolution of disputes, and also to the very foundation of the negotiated settlement that ended apartheid and ushered in black majority rule in 1994. Like the brilliant lightning that accompanies a Highveld thunderstorm, the irreconcilable antagonisms between the working class and the capitalists, the unbridgeable gulf between the exploiters and the exploited, have been laid bare at Marikana. As has the role of the state, the armed bodies which protect the wealth of the ruling capitalist class, and the role of the government as the facilitator of the exploitation and oppression of the working class.
Starting in Rustenburg in the North West Province, the molten lava of workers’ rage is flowing across the platinum mines. The province is home to 80% of the world’s platinum reserves, exploited by some of the biggest mining companies in the world. The anger, detonated by the bloody massacre of 34 workers by the police on Wonderkop hill, Marikana, is threatening to engulf the gold mines in Gauteng, the industrial heartland of the country.
The considerable political impact of the 2007 public-sector strike, which prepared the way for the recall of the African National Congress’s then-president, Thabo Mbeki, opened up the biggest divisions in the ANC since its foundation one hundred years ago. But that pales in comparison with the impact of the rebellion of the mineworkers triggered by the Marikana uprising. Strewn among the rubble left by these earth-shattering events lie the credibility of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), its parent federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and, above all, the ruling ANC itself.
It was the 2010 public-sector strike that first revealed sharply that the shotgun marriage between the organised working class and the Jacob Zuma faction of the ANC had been a completely false union between the political elite in the service of capital and the victims of the ruthless exploitation of the capitalist class. It was in that strike that the Zuma administration first demonstrated its real anti-working class character, with a venomous torrent of abuse by ministers, denouncing the strikers as thugs, criminals and murderers. Mass dismissals of health workers (later rescinded) accompanied threats to ban the right to strike in whole swathes of the public sector, including health, education, the police and army. If the ANC government sheathed its sword in the battle with the public-sector workers in 2010, it wielded it with a vengeance this year against the Marikana miners.
The first casualty of war, whether of the military or the civil kind (for that is what the tumultuous conflict in the mines represent in outline), is the truth. The propaganda machine staffed by the media, government, bosses, SACP and, most scandalously, the NUM, went into overdrive to claim that the police acted in self-defence. Not only has that been exposed as utterly false but it has been shown to have been consciously calculated to conceal the now undeniable truth: that the Marikana massacre was premeditated.
The Lonmin company which runs the mine has a strong pedigree of brutality in the virtual police state it has established on its mines. Private security forces and the police serve the mining bosses and act with impunity. The deaths that occurred before the massacre, which claimed the lives of six workers, two policemen and two security guards, were the direct result of the culture of violence that the company has cultivated over the years.
Lonmin itself is a descendant of the notorious London-based Lonrho, which even Britain’s former Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, described as “an unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism” in the House of Commons in 1973. Mmegionline pointed out (24 August), that Lonrho’s chief executive, Tiny Rowland, spread corruption throughout Africa as it exploited the continent’s workforce.
The strike was triggered by the bosses’ decision to grant wage increases to selected groups of workers to prevent them, rumour has it, from defecting to other companies offering higher rates of pay in a sector with no centralised bargaining or uniform remuneration. These increases breached a two-year agreement signed with the NUM and due to end in 2013. Seeing this as an attempt to create divisions, and with the two-year agreement effectively set aside by management with the apparent acquiescence of the NUM, the workers, acting independently, put forward a single pay demand to unite the workforce against the bosses. The NUM’s impotence in the face of these developments had infuriated the workers, and reopened the wounds of the NUM’s betrayal of the Lonmin workers last year. A committee was formed independently of the NUM.
During the NUM’s 2011 shop stewards elections, the workers had voted out the majority of the old committee, and replaced them with their preferred candidates. The NUM regional office rejected the elections as ‘unconstitutional’ and refused to recognise the new committee. Instead of attempting to resolve the matter with their members, NUM regional leaders informed management that the structure had not been recognised.
When management refused to deal with the committee, the workers rejected this attempt to interfere with their democratic will and, in effect, to dictate to them who they may or may not elect. They, then, went on strike. The NUM distanced itself from the strike, and 9,000 workers were dismissed for striking illegally. Such was the anger of the workers that NUM leaders addressed their own members from inside an armoured police vehicle, ignoring demands to step out and face them.
Preparing for a Showdown
Contrary to the parallel myth that this summer’s dispute was the fallout from rivalry between the NUM and the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), the strike committee was established independently of both unions. In fact, the first pre-massacre killings took place when the independent strike committee approached the NUM office to discuss unity in action. Two of the delegates were shot and killed from the direction of the NUM office. Police and private security were sent in to suppress the independent workers’ committee and prevent the strike from taking off. Precisely what the circumstances were of the killings of the police and security guards remains unclear. Despite this, the killings were used as a pretext to demonise the workers as bloodthirsty and intent on sowing mindless mayhem.
Recognising that they were vulnerable in the mineshafts, the workers decided to move off the mine premises and to occupy Wonderkop hill. It was, in other words, an act of self-defence not aggression. Workers, however, had had a sense of foreboding for days before the massacre. It was their vulnerability, their determination to maintain unity that led to them resorting to superstitious rituals and the use of muti (traditional medicine). It was intended to convey a message of determination, that they would stand their ground in the face of management and police threats, rather than a genuine belief among the majority that the muti could render them invisible.
Management’s arrogant hard-line attitude and contemptuous dismissal of the workers’ demands, together with the aggressive deployment of mine security and the previous killings, indicated that a bloody showdown was being prepared. Workers armed themselves with the only things they had at their disposal, traditional weapons which are wielded by virtually all workers during strikes, and which are hardly weapons of war. They had one simple demand: that management meet them and respond to their grievances.
By 15 August, public pressure had reached the point where management, the NUM and Amcu were obliged to appear on national radio and publicly agree to start negotiations the following day, even announcing that they had an offer to table. On the fateful day, management arrived 90 minutes after the appointed time, only to announce, according to Amcu, that there would be no negotiations and, chillingly, “that the matter was now in the hands of the generals”. (There has been an apartheid-style re-militarisation of the police, and shoot-to-kill philosophy popularised by former police commissioner, Bheki Cele, who has been sacked for corruption.)
The Amcu leaders made one last, futile effort to persuade the workers to come down from the hill, warning them that blood was going to be spilled. In fact, by the time the Amcu leaders were meeting with the workers the clock for the massacre was already ticking. Amcu leaders report that they were allowed to leave the hill only after lengthy negotiations with senior police officials. The plotters of the massacre had been prepared to include the Amcu leaders in the slaughter. Not long after the Amcu leaders had vacated the hill, the massacre began.
Executing the Massacre
Clearly, a decision had been made to drown the strike in blood. It could not have been taken by Lonmin management or the police alone. The government must have been consulted at the highest level. In this single act is laid bare the essence of the class basis of capitalist rule: the police as protectors of the wealth and power of the capitalists; the government as the political attorneys and facilitators of the exploitation of the workers by the bosses; the union leaders as the collaborators of the bosses and the government in keeping the workers bound hand-and-foot on their behalf. In that act, too, the umbilical cord of the masses’ illusions in the ANC government was severed.
What has since emerged is that the main massacre occurred 300 metres from the site television cameras were trained on, at a smaller hill to which workers had fled. There is evidence that they were shot execution-style, as they raised their hands in surrender, or in the back as they fled.
At most, the workers were in possession of one pistol, possibly from disarming a police officer or security guard at the mine in the days before. Beyond that, the workers had nothing more than panga knives, knobkerries, sjambok whips and other traditional paraphernalia that posed no threat to police with automatic weapons. Armed police, with armoured vehicles and helicopters, tear gas and razor-wire deploying machines, mounted an operation that was designed to clear the hill, force the workers back to work, and break the strike.
It did not occur on the spur of the moment. It was planned. The razor wire was deployed deliberately to allow for a small gap, tempting the workers to rush towards it. Those who did so were mowed down in a murderous hail of bullets. Subsequent accounts presented the attempt to escape from the hill as an attempted assault on the police.
Declaring Class War
The Lonmin strike occurred against the background of a mounting crisis in the industry. The global economic slowdown has caused a crisis in the motor industry, with levels of overcapacity that would require a market the size of the US to bring all idle plant into operation. Platinum extraction, completely dependent on the motor industry’s need for catalytic converters, was an inevitable casualty. Supply rapidly outstripped demand, aggravated by the greed of speculators who worsened oversupply to the point that platinum plunged to just 50% of its historic price. Lonmin’s share price has taken a serious knock and the company will miss its production targets for this year.
Nonetheless, the reality is that the halt in production has changed the balance between supply and demand, resulting in an increase in the price of platinum. In that sense, the company is not threatened by the loss of production. Why then did management, the police and the government feel the need to crush the strike? The reason is that, by embarking on a strike, the workers were challenging more than their exploitation. They were rising up against the entire establishment, and the carefully engineered system of collective bargaining designed to trap workers in endless procedural technicalities to avoid going on an ‘unprotected’, that is, illegal strike.
The strike was illegal in that it did not follow procedure. The existing two-year agreement signed by the NUM and management was ignored by both the signatories and the workers. The NUM leaders were being rejected and denounced as management stooges. Worse still from the NUM’s point of view, in self-defence workers armed themselves with traditional weapons – useful, at best, in close combat – as a symbol of unity, determination and combativity. The entire system of oppression, on which the continued exploitation of the workers depended, was at risk. The bosses were outraged at the ingratitude of workers no longer prepared to walk around in chains, to live in squalor, and to be treated like slaves.
This was no mere wage strike. It was an unarmed insurrection. That certainly was the view taken by the Lonmin bosses and the entire capitalist class in the mining industry and beyond. In an extraordinary editorial on 17 August, Business Day issued what amounted to a declaration of class war against the Marikana workers. It spelt out in clear language the political implications of the workers’ action and why it was intolerable. It appealed for class unity across the entire capitalist class. In language breath-taking for its forthrightness, shorn of the normal euphemisms about the common interest of all South Africans united across classes in the common endeavour to achieve prosperity, the editorial condemned the inaction of the Lonmin management:
“Lonmin needs to be a part of the solution to an intractable problem at the mine. It isn’t new. The new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is slowly taking apart the venerable National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the platinum industry, mine after mine. That fact, on its own, should be enough to raise alarm bells throughout the South African body politic. The NUM is the thoughtful, considered heart of the union movement here. Cyril Ramaphosa [former NUM leader, now big-businessman] and Kgalema Motlanthe [South African deputy president], for instance, come out of it. As a union it is a powerful voice of reason in an often loud and rash movement.
“It appreciates and values private capital and strong companies. Business everywhere should be hoping the union finds a way to defend itself effectively from Amcu’s attacks… For a start, the strike is ostensibly about pay, an issue neither the police nor the unions can solve. Second, business, just for the sake of it, needs to be seen to stand up at a moment of crisis like this in South Africa and be damned well counted.
“The strike and the tragedy of Thursday will be with us for a very long time. It represented a failure of our new society on many levels, most strikingly the inability of the majority black establishment (of which the NUM and the ruling African National Congress and union umbrella Cosatu are leaders) to come to terms with the majority of black, marginalised, poor and desperate people.
“Amcu was bred around beer and fires in deepest rural Pondoland in the Transkei… There is not going to be any stopping Amcu. That means a solution to the violence has to be found at a high level, and that it has to recognise, for the NUM and for Cosatu and the ANC itself, the extremely uncomfortable truth that there is a power building in the land over which they have little or no influence, and which itself has little or no respect for the powers that be”.
Fault-Lines in the Power Structure
Here in undiluted language, without even a crocodile tear to blot the paper on which it was written for the deaths of 34 human beings, is how the bourgeois view the situation. As far as they are concerned, the Marikana workers are a threat to the entire edifice constructed at Codesa (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa: the negotiations to dismantle the apartheid regime). That brought in an arrangement by which the economic dictatorship of the capitalist class and exploitation of the working class would be perpetuated under a democratic mask held in place by the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu. In 300 bloody seconds, that mask had been ripped away with pointless savagery by the ‘democratic’ police.
In its paranoid, panicky reaction to the spread of the strikes, the government, Cosatu and the SACP has sought to blame Julius Malema, expelled ANC Youth League president, for instigating workers and destabilising the country. They have also attacked him for meeting with disgruntled soldiers, accusing him of threatening the security of the country. As a result, all military bases were placed on high alert. But, as Malema himself pointed out, he is out to save the ANC not destroy it. If he had not stepped in, he argues, the vacuum would have been filled by others with a different agenda.
Malema has his eye on the ANC’s Mangaung conference in December, preparations for which have already polarised the ANC over the succession to the presidency. It has been plunged into a virtual civil war and a factional strife far worse than the one that preceded the ousting of Mbeki. Malema hopes to be reinstated by the floor of the conference. So deep are the divisions in the ANC that another split along the lines of 2007, which led to the emergence of Cope (Congress of the People), cannot be excluded. Whatever the outcome of the December conference, however, it will make no difference to the working class.
As the entire conduct of the ANC leadership has shown since the massacre, the gulf between it and the masses is now unbridgeable. The Business Day editorial may have attacked Amcu. The real target, however, was not Amcu, which is a mere accidental phenomenon with no real alternative to offer the workers. As Lenin would have put it, Business Day was striking the bag to hit the donkey. Its target was the working class. The ANC has demonstrated that it shares with the capitalist class the same fear and loathing for the working class.
The Democratic Socialist Movement (the CWI section in South Africa) has played an important role in the struggle of the Marikana miners, helping to set up the Rustenburg Workers and Communities Forum. The struggle for justice for the Marikana miners and the families of those killed and injured by the security forces is the top priority. The pressure has to be increased on the Lonmin company, the police and the political establishment. DSM members are proposing a Rustenburg general strike, to be followed by a national strike and march. International pressure by workers and activists must also be maximised. The enthusiastic response to the ideas of the DSM among workers indicates the great potential for the development of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme, to defend the interests of working-class people in South Africa.